What better finale for a festival devoted to Antonio Vivaldi than a smart sampling of his late violin concertos? Especially as performed by Italian violinist and conductor Fabio Biondi and his ensemble Europa Galante, who have recorded no less than 22 CDs devoted to the composer’s music. Mix in two tasty overtures and a guest appearance by Italian bassoon virtuoso Sergio Azzolini, and the table is set for a splendid feast.

Fabio Biondi
© Pavel Kristian

This year’s Lednicko Valtický Hudební Festival celebrated Vivaldi for more than purely musical reasons. Having fallen out of favor in Venice late in his career, the composer moved to Vienna, where he found a receptive audience to the north, in southern Moravia. One month before his death in 1741, Vivaldi sold a set of 15 concertos (now known as the Collalto Collection) to a nobleman who lived not far from Valtice. Surprisingly, the four concertos performed by Biondi and his players were Czech premieres. Another connection: Vivaldi likely wrote the bassoon concerto (RV 496) for Antonín Möser, a brilliant Bohemian bassoonist.

Biondi describes Europa Galante as a “family” and they sound like it. The ensemble has been together for 30 years with relatively little turnover, and speaks with one voice. The playing is remarkably precise, with every note clearly articulated and perfectly balanced. Their interpretation of Vivaldi is distinctive, animated and robust, but more controlled than most, with some of the fire taken off the top. This touch of restraint informs rather than detracts from the music, letting the details emerge and strengthening the contrasts. Nor does it rob the strings of that chiming quality unique to Vivaldi. 

Europa Galante
© Pavel Kristian

Biondi leads all this with a fluid style and a sweet sound that stands out nicely against a deep orchestral continuo. He played all the solos in this performance, showing strong versatility – a fierce attack in RV 189, technical prowess in RV 286, gentle delicacy in RV 371. The variety of tones, by turns colorful, muted or dry, also reflect the great care and deep scholarship he brings to the music.

Azzolini was a revelation on the bassoon, which he wielded like a rock ’n’ roller. His sound was exceptionally clear and his interpretation almost sensual at times. It would be a stretch to call any Baroque music soulful, but with the emotional expression Azzolini manages to pull out of his instrument, he comes close. The ensemble ramped up its intensity to match him, creating a joyride that felt like it ended too soon. 

Fabio Biondi, Sergio Azzolini and Europa Galante
© Pavel Kristian

The program also offered a fascinating opportunity to hear how Vivaldi sampled his own work. The overture to Dorilla in Tempe, for example, ends with a slice of the “Spring” section from The Four Seasons. And RV 189 borrows melodies from his cello concertos. Along with sheer enjoyment of hearing those pieces, moments like that added a layer of insight to the performance.

Vivaldi’s music is so ubiquitous and universally beloved now, it’s hard to imagine him destitute, selling off his work to stay alive. It’s also hard to appreciate the richness and invention that remained constant in his music, which tends to get flattened out in the plethora of modern performances. In that respect this was an illuminating evening, a look at what a group of dedicated musicians willing to devote time and research can find in familiar repertoire. In Biondi’s world, there is always more to be discovered.

Frank's press trip was funded by the Lednicko Valtický Hudební Festival